Fifty years ago this June I moved to Columbia from Boston with my wife, a newly graduated nurse. Columbia was already six years old at that point, but no, we were not pioneers. That term was reserved for those folks who moved in the very first year, from June 1967 to June 1968.
But the town was still quite new and growing under what was then termed New Town zoning. The developer, a subsidiary of the Rouse Co. called Howard Research and Development – as it is still officially called today under ownership of the Howard Hughes Corp. — was given substantial leeway in following the plans it had submitted for 14,000 acres it had surreptitiously purchased in the mid-1960s.
There was plenty new about the New Town, including our two-bedroom apartment on Tamar Drive in Long Reach. We were the first to move in and got two months free rent to boot.
In 1973, Howard County had 85,000 residents, about half of them newcomers to the new town. The county was already twice the population it had when Rouse started acquiring the farmland and forest. Howard had been a segregated and conservative rural enclave from the time it split off from Anne Arundel County in 1851, growing only a smidgen from the Civil War to the start of World War II when it reached just 17,000 folks.
The building of the interstate highway system in the early 1960s, with I-95 in the east and I-70 to the north, was to change all that, and Rouse saw the advantages of location.
Much is made of Rouse’s vision for Columbia as a social enterprise: interracial, multifaith, environmentally conscious, very progressive in its day. But at its core, Columbia was an exercise in land use and planning. How do you build a small city from scratch, with places for all its institutions and elements?
On that level, Columbia was not just a success but a model for new development across the county. That included everything from hundreds of cul-de-sacs to the group mailboxes the Postal Service piloted here and are now found in new developments everywhere, like my sister’s neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona.
Columbia and Howard County are now at a mature age of development. Its residents, its housing stock and business centers, like me, are all showing their age.
The creation of Columbia was originally sold to a set of conservative anti-development county commissioners as a way to prevent the suburbanization of the mostly rural county. In retrospect, Columbia may have accelerated that trend, partially in response to the pressures created by the interstates and the highways built and expanded as Columbia grew. Fifty years ago, to get to Columbia’s Town Center from our Long Reach apartment you took two-lane Oakland Mills Road to a stop light at Route 29. There was no Route 175 – who among us calls it Rouse Parkway, as the signs say? – and Route 100 came decades later.
Now everywhere you travel in eastern Howard County has been developed with homes, town houses and yes, apartments as you see along Route 1 and the Route 100 corridors. Maple Lawn is now a large mixed-use development that mirrors Columbia. Twenty years ago it was a huge turkey farm.
Howard County is now home to 335,000 people, 10 times what it was 60 years ago.
The new draft general plan for Howard County called HoCo By Design now being reviewed by the County Council predicts much slower growth in coming decades. Redevelopment of existing space will be emphasized, such as what is occurring in downtown Columbia as part of the plan the council approved 13 years ago.
Says the draft of HoCo By Design: “Future growth in Howard County is expected to be modest given the limited amount of vacant land upon which housing and other development can occur. Most of the County has already been developed or preserved as agriculture, parks, and open space, and there is limited land left for the typical greenfield development that occurred in previous decades. … This dwindling land supply and the challenges associated with developing it naturally reduce growth opportunities.”
Besides downtown Columbia, a major focus for this mixed-use redevelopment will be Columbia Gateway, 1,000 acres between Snowden River Parkway and I-95. Developers don’t tear down 20th Century warehouses and two-story flex buildings to construct single-family homes. They will be ready to replace them with 21st Century mid-rise and even high-rise mixes of retail, office and apartments. Major road improvements will be needed to accommodate this growth.
As evidence of redevelopment, note the construction along Route 108 between Route 29 and Columbia Road where old houses have been torn down to make for more intense uses.
Over the coming years, county planners are expecting thousands more apartment units to be built rather than single-family homes or even town houses. Outside consultants for the county planners have found that the county may host 282,000 jobs by 2040, 59,000 more than in 2019. Many of those folks will want to live here. Yet “Howard County has fewer housing units for each job than nearly every other jurisdiction in the region, with an estimated undersupply of more than 20,000 units. This metric does not account for new housing needed to support the targeted 3,000 new jobs per year the county seeks to maintain,” say the planners.
This will further exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing in the county. That shortage was not true when we moved here, but it has grown progressively worse. In 1986, we bought our third home for $108,000. Our Ryland model in our Owen Brown neighborhood is now selling for over $500,000.
“It is important to note that redevelopment in mature suburban communities like Howard County can be difficult and time-consuming,” says the planning document. In the next two decades, expect struggles over any higher-density redevelopment that impacts people who already live here.